Tuesday, January 29, 2013

General Maneuvers (Stunt System) for 13th Age

Link to Version 1.

Link to Version 2.

Text of Latest Version:

I previously posted a homebrew system for general maneuvers in 13th Age.  I've since refined my ideas a little bit.  Instead of editing the original article, I figured I'd leave both up to illustrate the creative process, allow for easier comparisons between the two versions, and to allow GMs to choose which version they prefer (or to steal elements from both).

In a broad sense, what's different here?  The initial skill roll is more meaningful, as success or failure directly influence the consequences.  Maneuvers are more dangerous to attempt since an opportunity attack is triggered if you fail the skill check (the old system triggered one on natural odd misses in the attack roll).  However, they're also more likely to trigger since they happen if the attack hits (rather than triggering off of natural roll results).  This also helps to differentiate them from flexible attacks.  Ultimately, a player's choice to use a maneuver is much more likely to have a tangible mechanical effect, which is definitely a good thing.

I thought I'd also explain why I set maneuvers up the way I did.  A big influence was the "mephistophelean style of GMing" that Rob Heinsoo utilizes.  Namely, providing players with a "bargain" of sorts; an opportunity for a choice that carries some additional risk and reward.  The word "additional" is key here in engaging the player's ability to make a choice.  You're increasing the stakes when using them.

I also drew from D&D 3.x, despite the fact that I think maneuvers were very poorly designed in that system.  Using them without appropriate feats was simply too costly: you provoked an opportunity attack AND you gave up your normal attack (which reduces damage output and slows down combat).  It was almost never optimal to use them.  Doing something on top of your normal attack is much more fun, and it also makes the tactical options more accessible.  At the same time, the risk of provoking opportunity attacks prevents players from constantly spamming these, so they're self-limiting in a way.  You'll only use them when it makes tactical or narrative sense to do so.  It's worth keeping in mind, after all, that skill checks do NOT benefit from the Escalation Die, so the risk of opportunity attacks won't decrease as the battle progresses.  It's also worth pointing out that a maneuver system like this makes the Skill Escalation feat that much more useful.


From the Rogue's Swashbuckle Talent:  "Of course, 13th Age is a game where everyone might attempt stunts like this at some point.  But you're the swashbuckler who is prone to automatically succeeding, often, instead of needing a difficult skill check to pull the stunt off."

As far as I can tell, the above quote is the only reference to a "stunt system" in the 13th Age core rules.  Clearly improvisational "rulings" are intended to be used freely, though no guidance is given for how to make these rulings, particularly in combat.  Here's my stab at it.

GM Note:  If the players can make use of these maneuvers, intelligent monsters should do the same.  You can use the homebrew rules for monster ability checks, or simply use the monster's attack bonuses.

Backgrounds:  I lean toward not applying backgrounds to the skill checks used during maneuver attempts.  However, if you allow them where appropriate, feel free to give monsters a relevant "background bonus" to their PD or MD. 


Quick Action:  Make a Str or Dex check vs PD
Failure:  The target makes an opportunity attack
Success:  If your next attack hits the target is tripped (Stuck until they stand up with a move action).  If you roll a natural 16+ the target falls hard (all attacks made against the target get a +2 bonus until they stand up).

Standard Action:  If you trip as a standard action, a successful skill check automatically causes the target to trip, and the target falls hard (attackers get a +2 bonus).  A failure will not provoke opportunity attacks. 

Special:  This can obviously only be attempted if suitable substrate for throwing is available (sand, mud, campfire ash, etc.).
Action:  Make a Dex check vs PD
Failure:  The target makes an opportunity attack
Success:  If your next attack hits the target is Dazed until the end of your next turn.

Standard Action:  If you attempt this maneuver as a standard action, a successful skill check automatically Dazes the target. A failure will not provoke opportunity attacks.

This is a catch-all maneuver for things like throwing chairs at enemies, pulling the rug out from under them, or dropping a tapestry, chandelier, brazier, etc. onto them.  

Standard Action:  Affect one enemy, or 1d3 enemies in a group depending on the action being attempted.  Make an appropriate skill check using the "Skill Check DCs, Trap/Obstacle Attacks and Impromptu Damage by Environment" table to determine the DC and damage based on the environment.  Cut the damage in half if the effect inflicts some sort of status effect.  Usually this will be Dazed or Stuck (if you're knocking the target down), though you could also use the homebrew rules for slowed creatures (if the target uses a Move action, roll a save, usually 11+, to see if they reach their destination). 

Action:  Make a Str or Dex check vs PD
Failure:  The target makes an opportunity attack
Success:  If your next attack hits the target is disarmed, and must spend a move action to pick up their weapon.  If your attack crits the weapon is flung to a Nearby location out of reach.  The target must spend a move action to get to it, and then another move action to pick it up.

Standard Action:  If you attempt this maneuver as a standard action, a successful skill check automatically disarms the target.  A natural 16+ causes the weapon to be flung somewhere Nearby.  A failure will not provoke opportunity attacks.

Special:  You must have at least one free hand.
Quick Action:  Make a Str or Dex check vs PD
Success:  The target takes a -2 penalty to Disengage checks.

Quick Action:  Make a Str check vs PD
Failure:  The target makes an opportunity attack
Success:  If your next attack hits the target is pushed back a few feet (it pops free of any engagements except the bull-rusher).  If you roll a natural 16+ the target can be pushed into dangerous terrain if any is present (off a cliff, into a fire, etc.).

Standard Action:  If you attempt this maneuver as a Standard Action a successful skill check automatically pushes your opponent back, and they can be pushed into dangerous terrain.  A failure will not provoke opportunity attacks.

Quick Action:  Make a Cha check vs MD
Failure: The target is enraged and gains a +2 bonus to attacks against you
Success:  The target takes a -2 penalty to attacks against anyone except you

Special:  If the player spouts some really impressive taunts, or if the target has some narrative reason to react strongly to taunting, feel free to increase the penalties (and bonuses) to -/+ 4. 

Quick Action:  Make a Cha, Int, or Dex check vs MD+5 (or just MD if the trick is really clever)
Success:  Grant yourself or an ally +2 to their next attack.

Special:  Most enemies don't like being duped.  What will prevent players from abusing this?  Get creative, but for starters monsters should start gunning for the trickster.  Also, most enemies won't let themselves be tricked twice, so this will usually be effectively a 1/battle thing anyways.  If the proposed trick is really stupid, the GM is not obligated to allow this maneuver to trigger.

Originally posted on 13th Age Homebrews.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Skill Equality Wins Out!!!

It's technically a pretty small thing, very easy to houserule.  Why, then, did the old class-based variable distribution of background points irk me so?  It's the principle of it.  D&D skills, when they were first introduced, existed in a very different system-level environment than 13th Age backgrounds.  Classes were balanced in part (albeit relatively poorly) based on differences in out-of-combat (OOC) and in-combat (IC) utility.   Rogues get more skills because they can't fight as well as Fighters.  When 13th Age tried to preserve the "tradition" of some classes being skill monkeys and others skill-impoverished, it didn't make any sense because all classes are relatively capable in combat.

Actually, 13th Age already has a mechanic for balancing IC vs OOC utility - the Talents system.  Players that want an exceptionally skilled Rogue can simply take the Thievery Talent.  Rogues have equal access to combat options, but by giving one up you can really load up on background points.  Same with the Ranger's Tracker talent, and the Bard's Loremaster/Mythkenner Talents.  All of the traditionally "skill-heavy" classes can already represent those archetypes through Talent selection!  Giving them more starting background points was redundant, and more importantly unfair. 

In case you haven't figured it out yet based on the title of this post, the final version of 13th Age will rectify this design mistake.  All classes will get 8 background points starting out.  Of course the only effect this will have on my 13th Age games is that it will have one less houserule.  More important to me is the fact that this game, which is currently one of my favorite RPG systems, is simply more polished.  The old background points were the most noticeable "sore thumb" of bad design in an otherwise phenomenal game.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Group 2 Plays 13th Age

Last night I started my second 13th Age campaign, with a different group.  Like my other group, I'm running through the Dungeon World front The Great Wyrm Axtalrath.  I'm interested to find out how much the two campaigns diverge given the exact same open-ended, sandbox-y scenario.  While I'll comment on mechanical bits in future posts, I probably won't delve too deep into the narrative with proper session summaries.  Partially due to time constraints, partially because it could potentially get confusing, and partially because I'm likely to reuse stuff which would spoil things if my players from either group read them. 

That said, so far the two groups are taking things in very different directions, which I'm happy to see.

I guess one of the first orders of business should be to introduce the new group:

Wood Elf Cleric
Icons:  1 (neg) The Three, 1 (conf) High Druid, 1 (pos) Priestess
Backgrounds:  +4 Linguist, +4 Wanderer
OUT:  Pieces of metal sometimes speak to him, and he either destroys them or incorporates them into his mish-mash equipment.

Dwarf Paladin
Icons:  2 (conf) Dwarf King, 1 (neg) The Three
Backgrounds:  +4 Bodyguard, +4 Diplomat
OUT:  He's a noble in exile; he abandoned his clan because he couldn't stand the dirty politics.

Human Fighter
Icons:  2 (pos) Great Gold Wyrm, 1 (conf) Emperor
Backgrounds:  +4 Soldier, +4 Blacksmith
OUT:  He's the only person known to have insulted the Emperor and survive to tell the tale.

Interesting Observations:

Iltisine was built as a melee Str Cleric, but the player purposefully gave him an 8 Con.  Yes, this is an experience D&D player who knew what he was getting into.  He also intentionally passed over most healing resources, having only his class feature and its associated feat.  Lowthesis grudgingly took Lay on Hands because of this.  Truth be told, I was interested in seeing how such a party would fare, but after the first session the player has asked to re-spec his Cleric into more of a spellcaster, and with more of a healing focus.  I'm allowing it, so I'll have to wait for another time to see a 13th Age party with no Cleric (or a non-healer Cleric) in action. 

While we're on the subject of Iltisine, Elven Grace is an extremely powerful racial feature.  In our first (short) fight he managed to get 1 extra standard action, and in the second he got 3, one on the d12.  I know that it's balanced around the fact that poor rolls could mean you don't get any extra standard actions in some combats, but given that most of the fights that I've run have seen the Escalation Die reach 6, the odds favor getting extra actions.  I might re-evaluate the power after we're a few sessions in, because as it stands it's hands-down the best race.

Both battles were against kobolds, and Evasive is a surprisingly nasty trait.  Granted, this group is used to the d4 HD kobolds of 3.x/Pathfinder, but these battles still ran a bit tougher than I'd expected based on my experience with the system.  But perhaps that also has something to do with the exploding clay pots that I gave them.  Still, the Paladin wasn't too happy when his Smite Evil, which normally does half damage on a miss, was essentially wasted because the shifty little buggers just refused to get pinned down. 

The highlight of the session (or lowlight, depending how you look at it) was a display of bad luck during the second battle that was worse than anything I'd seen in an RPG before.  It ran 9 rounds (I believe), and both Lowthesis and Argus both hit exactly twice.  It was pathetic, and made more pathetic by the lack of miss damage (kobolds).  Argus was getting to-hit buffs from Iltisine, and essentially got a permanent +2 bonus thanks to Two Weapon Pressure (that's not a maneuver you want to trigger almost every turn, lol).  His 2 hits both occurred in one round; he rolled a 19 which crit (thanks to Carve an Opening) and dropped his foe, and then he followed up with Cleave.  His one shining moment that battle.  At least Lowthesis was soaking up TONS of damage so his misses weren't quite as frustrating (Paladins being much more about tanking than dealing damage anyways). 

Iltisine ended up killing all but two of the kobolds (re: 3 extra standards thanks to Elven Grace).  He also demonstrated that even as a Standard Action, Hammer of the Gods isn't a bad spell (especially if you cast it when you have 2 standards that turn anyways!).  Another high point in the battle was when he took out 3 mooks with one attack (I think it was a crit with that sweet, sweet d12).  He was engaged with two of them, and I think it blew his mind when I moved the mini over to the third and said he took that one out as well.  Being used to gridded Pathfinder combat he was a bit incredulous at first, but when I explained what happened cinematically (he ran past the first two, sliced them clean through while on-the-run, and then stabbed the third) I think it made more sense to him.

This is what I LOVE about the mook rules - it helps free you from the restrictions of the Move/Standard/Quick turn structure.  Fourth Edition D&D had powers that allowed you to move and attack with one standard action, but the 13th Age rules go beyond even that.  It's a rule that instead of limiting what you can do, gives you even more flexibility.  The rule says "you kill an extra mook," and you do whatever you can with your character to make that mook die in a believable way, even if that means moving between two attacks.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Execute Order 66

I just wanted to give a shout out to the Order 66 Podcast, which I began listening to a few episodes ago.  This show has one of the highest production values of any gaming podcast that I've listened to, and there's a lot of really interesting and helpful information.  They used to cover Star Wars Saga Edition, but now they've switched over to Edge of the Empire and are 3 episodes into the "new" show.  The forums there are pretty good as well.

The shows tend to run pretty long (Episode 2 was FOUR HOURS!), but it's easy to listen to them in smaller chunks and it really just goes to show what a wealth of information you get.  There's a short section called Skill Monkey where a specific scenario is discussed and different options for applying the narrative dice are explored (a must-listen, in my opinion), they answer listener questions, and there's a section called Fragments from the Rim that outlines a specific roleplaying concept for the Star Wars universe and how that can be realized in EotE.  The "meat" of the show tackles some broad concept; for example, in the most recent episode there's a lengthy discussion of Obligation and how it's used, with the guy that wrote that section as a special guest!  Needless to say, I'll be following Order 66 regularly in the future.

An affiliate site, the Gaming Security Agency, is a collection of blogs and a valuable source of information.  A few recent articles discuss the design of the custom dice (Terminal Outcomes and its Follow Up), but there's also pre-gens, stat blocks, and various other EotE-related articles.

Finally, since this post is basically about outlining some various web resources for EotE, I'd be remiss if I didn't recognize Wookieepedia.  While not directly related to EotE, this Star Wars wiki is probably the most comprehensive source of information on the web.  Galaxy Masters are sure to utilize it heavily when planning storylines, and players may even find it useful when creating backstories for their characters. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Edge of the Empire Beginner Game Play-through

I finally got to play Edge of the Empire!  I ran Escape from Mos Shuuta from the beginner game for a group of 4 players.  Oskara, Pash, and Lowhhrick were chosen, and the last player opted to play Mathus over 41-VEX. This post will contain MINOR SPOILERS!!!!

By the end of the encounter in the cantina all of the players were comfortable with building dice pools and interpreting the results.  Coming up with narrative descriptions for threat and advantage was difficult in that encounter, but by the time we got to the stormtroopers that was starting to get easier.  I think it will take a few sessions before I can slip into that frame of mind relatively seamlessly, but at worst there's several seconds (and a few "ums") as I try to think of something.  Because players are called upon to spend advantage regularly, I anticipate that if I'm ever really stuck someone can probably throw a suggestion my way. 

Everyone was pretty good at trying to find creative ways to avoid combat.  There was no need for fighting at spaceport control so that was one combat completely avoided, and the encounter with Trex ended up being just with Trex, aboard the ship.  They successfully convinced him that Mathus was there to install the HMRI, and got around the Trandoshan-Wookie animosity by having Lowhhrick posed as his slave.  They blew their own cover when Lowhhrick grabbed Trex, with Pash dashing for the cockpit to take off as soon as possible.  The party actually never fought a single security droid the whole time. 

Interestingly, the party stuck it out in the fight with the stormtroopers.  They took some nasty shots but they worked together really effectively and made ample use of cover.  Part of the reason for their success was also that I forgot to have the stormtroopers take cover.  This being only the second combat that I was running with the system I guess I was too wrapped up in making sure everyone was getting everything.  It was also the first encounter where maneuvers really came into play, as the cantina fight ended up being so easy that the enemies were all dropped before any tactics could come into play.  Besides, at that point the players were mostly concerned with interpreting and rolling the new custom dice, so they weren't all that worried about the other mechanics yet.  Tactically-adept stormtroopers would have been scarier, for sure, but there's plenty of time for that in future games.

I was a little unsure of how space combat would fare with the group, and it definitely took me a minute or two to get my bearings as we switched to it (I told them that I had to skim over a few of the rules and maneuvers once more, and I think that short in-game review made the encounter run smoother than it otherwise would have).  Sometimes that's what a GM needs, and knowing when to admit that is a great skill.  I think the biggest surprise regarding space combat was that everyone was really impressed with all of the options that Mathus had back in the engine room.  In addition to repairing system strain, I allowed the players to use the options from page 8 of the final Beta update.  Boost Shields was a popular option, but they were salivating as I was reading off the other options as well.  It's also worth noting that the players arguably made best use of the initiative system in space combat.  Pash timed it so that his turn came after the TIEs, at which point he'd Stay On Target with 3 PC initiative slots following his action.  The plan was for Lowhhrick and Oskara to take out as many TIEs with the boost dice as possible, giving fewer enemies those same boost dice against the Krayt Fang.  Finally, I'd like to mention the fact that those linked laser cannons on the TIEs are nasty!  One advantage is a really cheap price to activate that trait, ANNNNNND as I was typing that I checked the Beta updates and realized that it now cost two, so that's better.  A few solid shots from a TIE could definitely bring down the YT-1300, adding tension to starship combat.  I think they pretty much nailed the Hull Trauma and Armor values for TIEs, and was very impressed with how these values supported the source material.  One shot from the Krayt Fang's turrets always took out a TIE in our game, and the only way that it could survive more than one hit would be for a gunner to succeed with only one uncancelled Success.  This perfectly matches the frailty of the TIE fighter, but still allows for the occasional glancing blow that doesn't quite cut it.  It's a tough line to walk, and it's hard to say whether that'll be modeled as well with other ships, but if they're going to get anything perfectly right it might as well be something as iconic as a TIE fighter.

We still had some time left after completing the beginner game adventure.  It took us around 4 hours, including a break for lunch, which is pretty fast.  Part of that is undoubtedly because the party was able to outright avoid 1.5 potential combats, though.  In any case, I continued with the first part of Long Arm of the Hutt.  Basically the part where they need to figure out everything that's wrong with the ship, find the Twi'lek prisoner, etc.  Trex was actually still on the ship at this point, but unconscious.  When Lowhhrick found the Wookie pelts, he jettisoned the Trandoshan's helpless body out of the airlock along with the pelts, so he won't be bothering them again.  We ended after they jumped out of hyperspace and were ambushed by Thwheek's ship (they shot him down).

Between running this and my last session of The One Ring, I'm really cultivating my aversion to running pre-made, published adventures.  They sound great in theory, but the session always feels more "stop and go" as I reference specifics from the adventure.  Occasionally I'll forget to apply some detail that becomes important later, and it's happened just enough times that I've gotten mildly paranoid about it.  This results in me double-checking stuff in-game even more frequently, and the session just doesn't go as smoothly.  Worse is the fact that it becomes less fun to run the game because I know it's not running as smoothly as it could.  I'd rather create my own stuff, a lot of that on-the-fly.  Games like this and 13th Age are helping me develop more improvisational skill as a GM, which is challenging but rewarding.  It's fun when I don't necessarily know what's coming up next.  Of the player types described in the D&D 4E DMG, I consider myself mostly an Explorer, so it's nice to have an element of discovery when I run games as well.  More and more I'm finding myself drawn to general plot points, locations of interest, and important NPCs and then throwing these elements together and filling in the details in-game.  I'll probably distill the rest of The Long Arm of the Hutt into these broad elements and run the whole thing more free-form, and hopefully the game steers itself away from that party on Geonosis because the intricacy of that scenario might not be compatible with that GMing style. 

Anyways, I think my players want to get another session or two under their belts, and then they all seemed very interested in creating their own characters.  One of my players has already expressed interest in GMing, so maybe I'll even get to play a character sooner than I thought!  Running 3 simultaneous games (two 13th Age games and now one EotE game) is started to wear me down!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

More Potions for 13th Age

I posted an article up on 13th Age Homebrews detailing 18 new types of potions.  Feel free to use in your own games, and let me know how they work out!

Friday, January 18, 2013

So 13th Age and Dungeon World walk into a bar...

Recap - Last Session
The last time I posted about my 13th Age campaign the party was still in the middle of a living dungeon.  During our session after that they continued onward, at a somewhat slower pace than I'd anticipated.  Two encounters away from a full heal up, the party was beat down pretty good.  The Barbarian had only a single recovery left, and was right around Staggered.  I let the player rebuild him because he was noticeably underpowered (lesson the first - don't use a shield as a Barbarian!), but it was impossible to tell how much that really helped given the disadvantage the character was already at. 

Their next fight was really tough; a trap-filled room that could be somewhat circumvented by climbing up 20 foot tall mushrooms and jumping from one cap to the next in order to reach the door out.  Unfortunately, an earth elemental fell from the roof onto one of the mushrooms, blocking their way forward.  I used a slightly modified re-skinned ogre, which is a tougher opponent than I'd realized for a 1st level party of mostly weapon users (go figure).  The environment was against them, multiple people were dropping every round, and the Cleric was funneling his own recoveries into the Barbarian thanks to the Healing Domain feat that he'd snagged for an incremental advance after the last session.  Eventually I finally hinted that the players don't necessarily need to kill the elemental to progress, and that they should probably just go for the door.  So they did, and survived - barely.

After traveling through some eery tunnels filled with purple tentacles they finally reached the "heart" of the dungeon, but not before their enemy had gotten there first!  A dark cleric was "plugged into" the dungeon, connected to tentacles which allowed him to "drive" it.  A mage guarded by two knights proclaimed that they were driving the dungeon straight to hell, and then ordered the attack.  The Ranger managed to hit the mage with two ranged attacks early on, one of which was a crit, and also applied Cruel.  In one round he nearly one-shotted him (but not before the mage got an Acid Arrow off), and the ongoing damage then finished him off two rounds later without anyone else having to attack him.  This made the fight significantly easier, and the Barbarian very happy.  After killing all of the enemies, the Barbarian stabbed the "heart" of the dungeon, killing it but sending it flying through the earth at breakneck speeds.  It shot them out on top of a mountain (the psychic, rune-inscribed door appeared on a cliff on that mountain), along with the Derro that had lived there and the Gnome, Nilku.

Enter Dungeon World
Sort of.   No, we didn't play it, but I decided I would test the Fronts mechanic from Dungeon World in my 13th Age game.  I used the sample front in the infamous Dungeon World Guide, The Great Wyrm Axtalrath.  For such a short write up (6 pages of fairly large print, with half of one page consisting of new races specifically for Dungeon World) there is a LOT of useable information packed in here!  I'll probably use Fronts, or a modified version of them, as my GM organizational tool for pretty much every game I run now.  Granted, a Front doesn't provide the same level of detail as a pre-made adventure; it doesn't have stat blocks, dungeon maps, etc.  But I suck at running published adventures.  They're usually a lot of reading relative to the amount of game time I'll get out of them.  A Dungeon World Front is minimal reading (with text that's organized VERY well for reference), and you can get many sessions worth of game time out of them.  Dozens, in this case, I think. 

On overall background summary sets up the premise.  A list of points of interest, accompanied by a map, provides enough inspiration for getting a picture of each place in your head, without overwhelming you with details.  Fill them in as needed, and leave room for expansion (the Dungeon World mantra "play to find out what happens" fits very well with 13th Age's narrative, icon and background based design).  The Dangers provide the main players that might oppose the party.  Simple description, short motivation, and some "Grim Portents" which are events that will transpire without any PC intervention.  They're basically well-organized plot points that give you some options for where to "go next" when your players are stuck or you've played out a different option.  These, of course, can be altered or change depending on what the players do so the whole structure of the narrative is affected by PC actions.  Which is how a roleplaying game SHOULD work.  The Front is rounded out with some Stakes (miscellaneous questions and handy reminders; I like to think of these as things unrelated to the Dangers that could become major plot points) and a short cast of NPCs.  I quite simply assigned each cast member an associated Icon, and then created more NPCs for Icons that didn't yet have any associated with them.  I detailed those that PCs had a relationship with more heavily, but given random Icon influence it's helpful to have at least an idea for who might act on behalf of other Icons. 

Ultimately, I think Fronts are going to help me improve my improvisational skills by providing just enough of a safety net.  There's plenty of room to build upon each and every short description in the front, and there's always a few things going on "in the background" (or just "waiting" to be incorporated later) so that the narrative won't ever really grind to a standstill.  

Session Summary
So how did all of this work out in play?  Beware that there are SPOILERS for the Great Wyrm Axtalrath in this section, though because of the flexible, sandbox-y nature of the Fronts you can probably play through the whole thing and have an entirely different experience. 

Well, the first major issue was the Derro.  The PCs destroyed their home, and even though they convinced the Derro that this was better than plunging into hell, they still demanded reparations.  The party led them down the mountain, left them under the canopy of the trees (since it was daylight, which they hate), and went into the town of Rockbreak.  Being midday, most of the citizens were either working in the mine or logging, but the Cleric found the local temple and they had a nice chat with the priest there.  He gave them all of the background info that they'd need to know (dragon destroyed all the roads, all the boats, but left the townspeople alive, Monolith glows every quarter moon, etc.), and seemed concerned about the prospect of a whole village of Derro refugees looking for a new place to settle. 

In pure reckless fashion, the potionless PCs didn't bother to look for any shops or anything, but returned to the Derro, who demanded the PCs scout out some possible caves (they'd do the same after nightfall).  Their first lead was a bust, but they noticed fires approaching from the coast.  They investigated, and I invoked the Grim Portent "Magmin appear on the western coasts," thanks to a roll of 5 for the Diabolist last session.  The party didn't attempt to ambush them and didn't make use of any good tactics whatsoever.  My homebrew Magmin beat the snot out of them (to be fair, auto-damaging fire auras were more powerful than I'd anticipated).  They only attacks that they landed were on minions (they destroyed 2 of 4), and the Cleric went down early removing the party's only source of healing.  PCs were dropping and hoping for death saves to bring them back up.  Nobody ever rallied, though the Barbarian used his Dwarf racial power.  I advised them to use the Retreat rule several times but they didn't.  Eventually after being VERY generous with the results of the Ranger's Terrain Stunt power I had the Magmin simply move on after everyone in the party was knocked out.  The Fighter rolled high on his death save just before the Barbarian was about to fail his last one, and he was able to stabilize him.  The party then fled toward Port Taramos, and I had no choice but to advance to the next Grim Portent under the Magmin danger (to be fair I would have given the PCs one last chance to beat back the Magmin, since they had a river to cross before reaching Rockbreak). 

A botched direction-finding roll from the Ranger (a fumble) led the party right into the swamps.  They were ambushed by Lizardmen, but got very lucky (in that I couldn't seem to roll higher than a 9, and Lizardmen get really nasty if you have a string of good rolls in a row).  After 2 of the 5 were killed, one of them told his allies to stand down, and demanded to know why the party broke the truce (here the party learned about the truce, obviously).  The Lizardman had his allies back away slowly, and eventually they swam off, and the leader asked the party to leave him gold and leave the swamp immediately.  Otherwise, they wouldn't leave the swamp alive.  The party cheaped out (left 1 gp each), which may come back to bite them in the ass later. 

They arrived in Port Taramos, learned of the Dragon Cultists, and bought some potions.  The Fighter (who had pocketed some gems back in the dungeon which melted - around all of his coins!) sought out an alchemist to help free his coins from the block of gem-glue (attempts to smash it earlier were met with the realization that the glue had seeped into the gold, making it impure and brittle).  And with that, the session ended.

On Sandboxes
Most of my attempts at running more sandbox-style games with this group have failed in the past.  The players just don't seem to want to take the initiative to go out and explore on their own; they simply wait for my next obvious hook.  When they've taken turns at the GM seat, they've very much resisted any attempts by me (as a player) to "go off the rails."  Well, this Front kind of forces them to do stuff, especially with the added pressure of the Derro refugees at the beginning.  They all want to get off of the island, but they recognize that there's no way they're facing down that dragon.  They're very interested in the Monolith, and they need some cash really badly, so there's two possible directions that they can take things next time.  I'll also need to remember to throw some fights their way that they're likely to win, to boost morale a bit and give them a shot at some loot.  I think they learned their lesson about dismissing basic tactics, so hopefully I see some smart playing in the future.

In other news, I'm starting up a game of 13th Age with my other gaming group as well.  And I'm starting a game of Edge of the Empire with this current 13th Age group, starting with the Beginner Box.  So stay tuned for developments on those fronts!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Adding to Mobility Denial in 13th Age

13th Age has a short list of status effects, and I consider that a big plus for a tabletop RPG.  One of my big pet peeves is when a game uses multiple different "flavors" of what is essentially the same effect (i.e. D&D 3rd Edition's Shaken, Frightened, Cowering, and Panicked; Fatigued and Exhausted; Dazed and Dazzled; Sickened and Nauseated; Paralyzed and Stunned; etc.).  I much prefer a minimum amount of rules which serve to represent a general concept.  The 13th Age "Dazed" condition does a good job of this, as it can stand in for any situation where you'd have trouble attacking (but aren't prevented from doing so altogether).

However, the list of Conditions is missing some functional concepts that many D&D players are used to.  Up until EE6 there wasn't a single form of mobility denial, but thankfully "Stuck" made it into the game.  Having anything in between "can't move at all" (Stuck) and "can move fully" is difficult in a system where movement is handled in abstract range bands, especially when granularity is so low that we have only "nearby" and "far away."  That's not to say I don't like the simplicity of the range bands, because I do.  It just means that we need to get creative to represent things like "slow," "difficult terrain," or "prone."

Quick, streamlined combats and combats where you can take tactical advantage of the terrain are not mutually exclusive.  Sure, 13th Age advises a "don't sweat the modifiers" approach but it can be really difficult for some players to describe their character's action if they don't have any mechanical incentives to work with.  Why try to put difficult terrain between you and an enemy if it has no effect in-game?  More importantly, this is a case of the game rules not supporting the game fiction.

The following houserules can be incorporated as new Conditions, or simply as guidelines that a GM can use as rulings in case players decide to get creative.

Whether an enemy is hobbled by a weapon strike to the leg, slowed down by a spell (perhaps as a result of Vance's Polysyllabic Verbalizations), or is forced to move through  terrain affected by another creature (i.e. an enemy triggers a rock slide, or a spellcaster magically animates the vegetation) this quick and dirty condition can be used.

If the slowed creature attempts to move it must roll a save.  On a failure, it fails to reach its destination.  Usually this is a normal save (11+), but depending on what is slowing the creature and how far they're attempting to move, the GM may rule that it's an Easy (6+) or a Hard (16+) save.

Difficult Terrain
This is a variation of the "Slowed" Condition. 

Sometimes it makes more narrative sense to allow a Slowed creature to make a skill check instead of a save.  Generally this will be the case when the terrain is not being affected by another creature.  This check will usually use DEX (icy terrain, rubble), STR (dense vegetation that needs to be muscled through), or WIS (if a good path can be found), though whatever ability makes most sense given the type of terrain or the player's approach to the problem should be used.  The DC is determined by the Environment, as with other skill checks.  On a failure, the slowed creature fails to reach its destination.

Quick, duck behind that barrel!

If you use a move action to get behind an item that grants a substantial amount of cover, ranged attacks are made against you as if the attacker were Dazed.

Characters can drop prone to avoid ranged fire, though it's not as effective as taking cover, or they may be knocked prone by powerful attacks.

You can drop prone as a quick action.  Standing up can be done as part of a move action, but if you wants to move anywhere else you must succeed at a Normal Save (11+).  While prone you are Vulnerable to melee attacks, but ranged attacks made against you take a -2 penalty.

*Note:  GMs should be careful about introducing reliable ways for players to gain bonuses like this.  For some, part of the fun of ranged combat is trying to find cover and eliminate the enemy's cover.  However, it does have the potential to slow the game down.  After all, the intent of the "don't sweat the modifiers" rule is to ensure that things run quickly and smoothly.  Keep in mind that if the players can take advantage of the environment, then the monsters should too.  Make sure that combats don't devolve into both sides hiding behind cover, hoping to get lucky with their debuffed attacks before the enemies do.

Originally posted by me on 13th Age Homebrews.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

End of a "Campaign"

So I've spent most of this year out-of-state, and therefore haven't gotten much time to run my (very intermittent) game of The One Ring.  Well, one of my three players is moving to CA, so tonight was our last session.  Pity, really, as I had planned on starting up Tales From Wilderland.

I spent as little time as possible tying everything in and getting the players to the Easterly Inn (since I'd already borrowed a lot of stuff from Don't Leave the Path, the idea was to start with Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbit).  Unfortunately, getting through the entire adventure in one night was a futile endeavor.  Finished up the battle at the Ringfort, but with about a half hour left to play I decided to just cut it off there.  One of the players wanted the group to go out in one big fight, another wanted to survive, but because this was going to be our last session for the forseeable future I had a Mountain-Troll stumble upon their camp and it killed them all.  Keep in mind that the Dwarf had previously rolled 4 Eyes in a row and I hadn't made good on a single Hazard, so this wasn't even completely outside the realm of fairness.

In any case, I ended the campaign with a feeling of frustration more than anything.  The guys in this group aren't really huge Tolkien fans, and they weren't playing to theme all that well.  The Dwarf's Treasure Hunter calling was played as a very one-dimensional "all I care about is getting gold!" as if he'd had 4 flaws already.  Not ideal in a system where gold is de-emphasized to the extent that it's counted in abstract "treasure points."  The Beorning was constantly making un-heroic comments and decisions to the point where I eventually just started throwing Shadow points at him for misdeeds.  While I LOVE the system, I don't think I'd recommend playing it with the "wrong" group. 

Some end-of-session discussion of the system as a whole occurred afterwards, and while the players enjoyed the game I got the sense that they were ready to move on.  They were starting to get up-in-arms about the way that skills were sometimes used; for example, when I told them that they needed to use Stealth to squeeze their way through the tunnel in the Ringfort I got a lot of backlash.  They were taking the skill names more literally than the system intends.  Stealth is at the intersection of Movement and Wits, and so "moving carefully" can cover maneuvering through a tight space just as much as it can cover moving without being detected.  Finally one player said he'd probably be fine with it if they just labeled it differently.

They also mentioned that combat was a little overly simplified for them, but they understood when I reiterated that the system assumes more narrative engagement then they were giving me.  I felt the same with skills as well; at one point the Barding said "I'm using Courtesy."  I asked "what exactly are you saying?" to which he replied "I don't know, I'm introducing myself in an appropriate way."  Perhaps I'm just being spoiled by my Play-by-Post game (which I think the system is really well-suited for). 

The biggest complement about the system was the way that Hope worked.  Oddly enough, they weren't as keen on Shadow, and I think it's largely because Shadow is dependent on roleplaying the internal struggle of the character which they just weren't interested in doing.

Next week I'm starting up a 13th Age game with this group (so I'll be running 2).  I'm think that this group might actually benefit from a few sessions of Dungeon World, but then again that might end up being a disaster.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: Lake Town Book and Loremaster's Screen

I got this product for Christmas and I think I've had enough time to digest everything by now.  You can purchase it here.

Loremaster's Screen
This is the first GM screen that I've ever purchased.  I've seen other screens (the 3rd and 4th edition D&D screens), and from what I can remember they were not as high-quality as this one.  The material is heavy and sturdy, and it folds up really well.  The player side of the screen is a big panorama of Lake-Town with Smaug's ribs sticking out of the water in the background.  Superb artwork, as we've grown to expect from The One Ring.  Unfortunately, I'll most likely use the screen by laying it down, tables-side-up.  We usually play on a carpeted floor and so this will make a great surface to roll dice on.  Besides that, I usually don't feel the need to conceal rolls from my players. 

The tables themselves are a mixed bag; some are so obvious that IMO they didn't merit inclusion (ex. the TN Difficulty Table), but most will be very much appreciated in my group.  The one I like the most is a table of the Adversary Special Abilities.  Knowing I would need these referenced, I'd been using a sheet of notebook paper where I'd hand-copied everything.  Given the legibility of my handwriting, it wasn't a perfect solution.  Glad I can toss that in the recycling now.  I've also had to look up the rest and recovery rules several times in-game, but those are conveniently on the screen now.  The situational tables such as falling and fire damage are great because they don't come up often enough to have memorized, and now they won't need to be looked up.  There are also tables which I don't even remember being in the book, like cursed treasures and general examples of bouts of madness.  A general table on evaluating the outcome of encounters is provided, and it uses the structure found in Tales from Wilderland.

Further page numbers are provided for other important topics that obviously wouldn't fit on a screen (skills, virtues, etc.).  Off the top of my head, about the only thing absent that I would have liked included would be tables on how to spend Experience and Advancement Points.  I suppose those things only need looking up when there's already a break from the narrative anyways, and players are often looking up new virtues or rewards at the same time.  Can't include everything, though, and I think the screen hits the really important tables.  There's 24 tables in all (not including additional page reference tables), so they've clearly squeezed a lot of information onto this screen!

Lake-Town Sourcebook
At 33 pages the book is slim, but it's packed pretty densely with content.  Despite being a stapled softcover, the production value is every bit as high as the core books.  The pages are thick, high-quality glossy paper.  Stats are given for all kinds of generic LM Characters such as town guards, dwarf smiths, raft elves, etc.  These are accompanied by descriptions, and provides a good overview of the types of people you're likely to encounter in Lake-Town.  There's a lot of variety here!

The center pages are a full 2-page map of Lake-Town.  It's an overhead view painting with numbers marking various features, and an inset in the corner provides a more schematic map that shows how the city is divided into its 7 quarters.  There's enough detail that players can get a good sense of what the place looks like, while still showing the whole city and how everything is spatially laid out.

There are several new Fellowship Phase undertakings, and they're more cleverly designed than the somewhat bland options from the core book.  You can go to the Market Pool to pick up high-quality items that give you bonuses to certain skills, you can collect marsh herbs which will benefit you in various ways during the next Adventuring Phase, and you can receive a title of Burgess which gets you a house in the city, and causes your Standing to apply to Esgaroth as well as your home town.  Very neat stuff!

The festival of Dragontide is detailed, as well as its archery contests.  These work much the same as the games from the Crossings of Celduin adventure.  Side bars clarifying the Blighted Places rules, and an optional rule for converting treasure points to coins, are also neat additions.  Finally, new monsters from the Long Marshes are also provided (3 of them, to be precise).

The book also details the new Men of the Lake culture, of course, and personally it's one of my favorites (2nd only to the Woodmen for me).  The cultural blessing lets you earn experience when bad things happen to you (costs Hope), and a new Specialty (Minstrelsy) is present on their list.  Their cultural skills are very well-rounded, with many skills at rank 2, only two skills at rank 1, and no skills at rank 3.  The Lake Men are cosmopolitan, almost jack-of-all-trades, and this leaves a lot of room for customization.  The backgrounds have Heart as their best attribute on average, with Wits as their lowest (but they can get a lot out of using shields, so it should even out).  Endurance and Hope uses the Barding values, and they also use the list of Barding names.

The cultural virtues and rewards are very well-crafted and evocative.  Virtues can improve your skill with a bow (not surprising), gain you a servant, allow you to make a good impression during encounters (increase tolerance), make you better with a shield, and demonstrate your balance thanks to a life on the water.  Personally, my favorites are Shield-Fighting and Water Legs.  The first provides some serious offensive punch (presumably you're shield-bashing), while the latter lets you play around with bonus success dice in interesting ways (such as those from a Battle roll), and will even give you a free one in certain situations.  The rewards are pretty awesome as well, and normally the cultural rewards don't really do much for me.  The armor seems a bit risky (bonus to protection rolls against certain weapons, but penalty against others), but the Keening Bog-stone oozes with flavor and minor magic, and the Serpent Scimitar basically lets you bypass enemy shields.

The book ends with a new pre-gen, Frida, Daughter of Finnulf. 

To be quite frank, the price tag is a little steep, at least coming from the perspective of someone who doesn't normally use GM screens.  That's actually why I waited to see if I got it for Christmas instead of going with the pre-order (ok, so the lack of PDFs is also a strike against the pre-orders now).  That said, what content that's present is genuinely good stuff.  Most groups will spend a lot of time in Lake-Town.  There's probably more dollar-worthy, useable stuff here than in an "X Power" D&D book 5 times its length.  Which is a good way of looking at it.  I'll only ever use 15% of the content of many of the D&D splatbooks I've bought, but I'll use almost 100% of the stuff from the Lake-Town book at some point or another.  And now that I have the LM Screen, even if I lay it flat and don't use it as a proper screen, my games will run more smoothly.

I'd call it a near-must for anyone who finds themselves in the Loremaster's seat, but if you're just a player it's probably only worth it if you're really interested in the Lake Men culture (but it would make a great gift for your LM).  Yes, The One Ring has been beset with delays and legal issues, but if they keep pumping out consistently high-quality products like this one and Tales from Wilderland (coming from someone who doesn't normally purchase published adventures either, lol), then I'll remain a loyal customer.  This stuff is worth the wait.

The Full Attack Trap

The last thing I want to do here is to throw more fuel onto the ever-raging edition war fire.  But I've been thinking lately about my aversion to D&D 3.x/Pathfinder.  I have a game group that still plays the system, and they've asked me several times if I want to join their game.  I haven't yet, because so far the flaws of 3.x and my desire to avoid them have overpowered wanting to play in another game with this group (I do still game with them, just not Pathfinder).

I did try Pathfinder a couple of times.  The thing that stood out the most was that combats lasted longer than in 4E, but were far less interesting.  I'm cool with more simplified, streamlined combat systems, but they need to a) support narrative contributions by the player in a fun and engaging way, and b) run more quickly.  Why would I want to spend 2 hours in one fight when I'm just saying "I use Power Attack" every round?  Yes, that actually did happen.

What follows are several observations from a game design perspective; while these are not my only complaints with the system, they are some of the major contributing factors.

Full Attack Action
It sounds innocuous at first glance, but in reality this is one of the most piss-poor design elements I've ever encountered in any game.  Ever.  Multiple attacks aren't a great way for character power to scale anyways.  The more attacks you roll, the more damage you end up rolling, and the end result is a lot of dice.  There's no change to the narrative action, nor the intent of that action; the only difference (besides the obvious increase in power, which can be accomplished through other means) is that the task resolution system is becoming more complex and time-consuming.  Needlessly, I might add.

But that's not the only problem with Full Attack.  The worse offender is that it makes combat far less interesting by restricting your options.  Full Attack isn't just a standard action, but takes up all of your actions for your turn.  Because making 2-5 attacks is far more powerful than making just 1, it's a non-choice - if you can use a full attack, you really should do it.  Instead of being dynamic, combat devolves into what some call "stand and bang."  You walk up to a dude, and you both throw a bunch of dice at each other until one of you falls down.  There's very little incentive to use a skirmisher-style of play, to change opponents, to move around to tactically advantageous terrain, etc.  Those fun, interesting things are made so drastically suboptimal that they simply don't come up in play. 

Ultimately, when I play a tabletop RPG I want things to do during my turn.  I want to make choices based on what makes narrative sense, and I want those choices to carry over and have meaningful mechanical consequences.  That usually doesn't happen with martial-type characters in 3.x/PF, but that brings us to...

This subject has been covered far and wide, pretty much everywhere on the internet.  So I'll keep this brief.  Martial characters are boring, so if you want to do something interesting you need to play a spellcaster.  This type of design is repellent to me because it punishes players for liking a certain archetype. 

Oddly enough, this goes both ways.  You see, spellcasters aren't universally more interesting.  At low levels they have enough spells to count on one hand (with fingers to spare!) and are otherwise reduced to taking potshots with a crossbow (this is somewhat ameliorated in Pathfinder, but the weak attack spells are a) still quite limited instead of being at-will, and b) are noticeably weaker than weapons.  Since I almost always played at low levels (1-3) back when I played 3.5, the fact that I preferred spellcasters made for some frustrating experiences (even if I wasn't aware of how frustrated I was at the time). 

Of course at high levels spellcasters are notorious for making some party members obsolete, but while they're no doubt effective, they're not necessarily fun.  First of all, being noticeably better doesn't leave you with a sense of achievement.  You've done cool things not because you made better choices than the Fighter, but because you were handed better toys.  But those toys can also be a pain.  I remember having multiple sheets of notebook paper to keep track of all of my spells, and I still had to look stuff up constantly.

Final Notes
The gap between the "boring" and "interesting" classes is just far too wide.  On one end of the scale you have the guy with the non-choices.  "I full attack" is what he says every round when it comes to his turn.  On the other end a player could get downright overwhelmed by all of his choices.  "Why am I forced to play a micromanaging bean counter just to do interesting things?"

Like I said, these aren't my only problems with the system, but I think they're two of the biggest contributors to making combat really boring, especially for players of martial characters.  Why should an increase in power come with a reduction in meaningful choices?  Perhaps if someone comes up with houserules that mitigate these problems I'd consider joining a Pathfinder game.  Maybe.